This week, I saw the film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, at last. I adore this novel, and I’d been tweeting incessantly [obsessively] about the movie for months. The teaser trailer was brilliant, its cast stellar, and its source material seriously, seriously fucked up.
It surprised me, then, how conflicted I felt about the movie itself.
Let’s be clear: I love this book–so much so that I made an argument about it a major plot point in a 00Q fic (in which it’s Bond’s favorite novel). For that reason, I’m keenly aware that some of my quibbles (which I won’t detail here) spring from the well of “That’s not how I pictured that.” Those sorts of qualms are relatively easy for me to set aside.
What bothered me more, in the end, was that Ben Wheately’s film effectively negated the thing about the novel that I love the most: its ambiguity, its refusal to bow to causality, its embrasure of chaos within what looks like a tidy narrative structure.
Spoilers for the book and the movie below.
First, it’s important to know that High-Rise the novel is built on contradiction: it features beautiful descriptions of terrible things, a legion of unlikable characters, and one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read:
Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.
Further, while the central metaphor of the text–the high-rise itself as a zoo that encourages the very worst class-ist and id-driven impulses of its residents–is not at all subtle, much of the narrative itself is. It’s the novelistic equivalent of a Pinter play, essentially: menace is everywhere, especially in the banal, and the events that unfold are deeply disturbing and often not fully explained.
Part of that ambiguity, I think, comes from the way in which the story is constructed. Although it’s presented in a detached third-person POV, the perceptions of three main (male) characters are paramount: the aforementioned Laing, the brutal (and aptly named) Richard Wilder, and the building’s architect, Anthony Royal. There’s a lot these men don’t know (or care to know) about what’s happening around them, and why, and those prejudices become even more profound as the novel goes on.
Indeed, the narrow nature of their perspectives is suggested by the near-total absence of dialogue in the novel: each of these men (and thus the reader) are caught in the traps of their own minds and show little interest in reaching outside of themselves, of moving beyond the increasingly narrow worlds they construct for themselves in the high-rise. Characters appear and disappear as they move in and out of the protagonists’ spheres of interest, for example; people die or survive in circumstances that aren’t made explicit–this is a novel built on ambiguous ground rather than on a linear tick-tock of narrative events.
For me as a reader, that’s a plus. I like ambiguity in my texts, I’ve discovered, from Pinter to Kubrick to my beloved Hannibal.
But I didn’t realize how central it was to my enjoyment of the novel until I saw the film, which trades away much of the mystery in favor of hammerhead narrative explanation.
For example, the inciting incident in the novel is the death of the jeweler, the second richest tenant after Royal himself. The (unnamed) jeweler plummets to his death from the 40th floor of the building, an event that climaxes an evening of loud, drunken parties and signals the building’s inexorable decent into full-scale madness. His death is never explained–was it a suicide? was he chucked over the side by his well-bedecked wife? Laing wonders–and never investigated, as no one in the entire building calls the police.
In the movie, however, the jeweler is replaced by a new character called Munrow, a priggish medical student of Dr. Laing’s. After passing out in Laing’s class, he later publicly humiliates Laing by shunning him at a fancy dress party (like you do), mocking Laing, essentially, for being of a lower class. Incensed, the painfully passive-aggressive Laing tells Munrow that he has an inoperable brain tumor–a total lie. Munrow, despondent, gets fantastically drunk and jumps from the 39th floor.
Narratively, this “explains” Munrow’s death in a way that the jeweler’s in the novel is not. It also serves to paint Laing as a Morally Dubious Fellow, who perhaps is not as nice as his (fucking amazing) suits and mild-manner suggest.
On the one hand, I can see why you’d make a choice like this: as viewers, we don’t have access to Laing’s interior life on screen as we do in the novel (or, at the very least, giving us that access isn’t easy). On the other, however, it also simplifies Laing’s character (and gives him far more agency, ironically) in a way that’s out of sync with the novel. He’s weak in the book–as many of the male characters are, I’d argue–never a leader, not really a follower, a man with no ambition to move beyond his current station. Laing’s not prone to violence, or to self-reflection. Making him responsible by proxy for Munrow’s death is to give him more power than he deserves; it makes him an actor in the high-rise, rather than the one who’s most successful at navigating its tides.
It’s boring, this choice. Banal. Bordering on a surrender to the melodramatic. And it fashions an causal narrative thread that to me feels unnecessary and even intrusive.
Similarly, the film transforms Charlotte Melville into a sort of character-ex-machina. She’s presented as both a narrative fairy prone to spitting out key information at random (particularly during sex, which is something) and, bizarrely, into Royal’s former mistress and the wife of his apparent heir.
Again, the effect of this change is to introduce a line of narrative continuity and causality where, for my money, none is needed. In the novel, Charlotte and Royal have nothing to do with one another. There is no suggestion that they’ve ever met, much less had sex and conceived a child. Rewriting Charlotte as Royal’s mistress means that There’s A Reason that she’s in the high-rise, A Reason why she and her son Toby survive the events of the film and end up on the 40th floor–A Reason that has nothing to do with her grit, her organization of the parents in the building into a unified force, her determination to protect Toby. While the introduction of Munrow gives Laing an agency he doesn’t have in the novel, making Toby into Royal’s son effectively erases Charlotte’s agency that’s central to her character in the novel.
Admittedly (and herein lies the rub), much of that agency is suggested in the book, rather than shown; like many of the other female characters (who outlast and outlive most of the male characters, including Wilder and Royal), Charlotte is in focus in the novel only when she’s of interest to, or intersecting with, the three male protagonists. Given some of the other changes made to female characters (particularly the erasure of Anne, Laing’s sister, and the combination of her character with that of Wilder’s wife, Helen), I can’t help but wonder if the alterations to Charlotte here were designed to make her overtly significant to the narrative in a way that she is not in the book. Not a bad idea, and indeed one that makes sense given the super-Freudian dick-centeredness of Ballard’s novel. But I’d like to think that there are ways of doing that which do not involve making her anyone’s babymama.
Overall, these choices, for me, burn a path of narrative causality and connection that’s unnecessary. Indeed, it removes some of the central horror of the novel, horror that’s born of the randomness of the high-rise, of the ways in which people will act and destroy and undermine each other for no goddamn good reason at all: simply because they want to and because they can.
That said, there’s a reason that Ballard’s book was considered “unfilmable” for much of the past 40 years. It’s an interior monologue, one driven by the three male protagonists, yes, but one that enraptures and captures all the tenants of the high-rise as well. How the hell do you transfer that to the screen?
Well. Despite my complaints, I’m very glad that Wheately and co. gave it a try.
All of that said: would I recommend watching High-Rise? Yes, with a few caveats.
On the plus side, the acting. For example, Luke Evans, who plays Wilder, is absolutely superb. This is his movie, over, under, and through.
Despite the weird narrative neutering of Charlotte Melville, Sienna Miller is excellent in the role. And Tom Hiddleston’s Laing is quite good, too, particularly during the sequence when Laing finds himself increasingly anxious about leaving the building. The film also looks gorgeous, especially at its most profane. It’s never dull to watch.
Now, the caveats:
First, there is graphic depiction of sexual assault–not the rape itself, but the beating that presages it. There’s no question what’s about to happen, and we’re shown the horror as the female character realizes that she’s about to be assaulted. While this is something that happens in the novel, it’s far more graphically depicted here. There is also a suggestion of violence against animals, though, oddly, far less than actually occurs in the book. (Interesting that the filmmakers thought we could handle seeing one and not the other. Hmm.) Finally, there’s some body horror, especially in the first 10 minutes when Laing is giving a medical lecture that involves peeling a corpse’s face off. It’s not subtle.
Better yet, though: read Ballard’s book. Or listen to Tom Hiddelston’s amazing audiobook version. And then come back and argue with me about this terrible, brutal, beautiful text.